Let the circus begin: Debates bring Democratic primary campaign and sideshows to Miami

In a span of less than 24 hours, the governor of Washington rode an airboat in the Everglades, the vice president flashed his Spanglish at an airport DoubleTree, and a California congressman was denied entry into a Homestead detention center.

Welcome to 2020, Miami. For one week, at least, you are the epicenter of presidential primary politics.

With the first debates of the young campaign opening Wednesday, a crush of Democrats brimming with optimism that their party’s nomination is more attainable than ever have descended upon South Florida. Republicans, smart to an international media circus, have come along, too.

The scene is not exactly what Miami’s political class had hoped for when it sought unsuccessfully to win next summer’s Democratic National Convention, the party’s seminal event. But more so than perhaps any other two-day window during the marathon 2020 campaign, the debates Wednesday and Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts offer promise for those who can create a moment or two and defeat for those who fail to break through.

“We didn’t get the convention, but the debate is our consolation prize,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, whose congressional district is the site of the debate.

Eager to raise money and capitalize on the first true inflection point of the young campaign, some of the nearly two dozen Democratic candidates have turned South Florida this week into a circuit for the presidential primary clown car campaign.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee caught an Everglades airboat ride Monday to highlight a climate policy rollout and then toured Little Haiti Tuesday to talk about climate gentrification. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke attended an education town hall with the American Federation for Teachers in a North Miami middle school gymnasium. Former Maryland congressman John Delaney held court with reporters at a downtown Miami Hilton.

“I’m looking forward to Wednesday night,” said Julián Castro, a former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who has been in Miami since Sunday. “For me, it’s an opportunity to introduce myself to a lot of American voters who may not know who I am and what I’d like to do if I’m elected president.”

Castro is among the many candidates hoping to gain traction this week. He is one of 10 debating Wednesday, a night that will also feature New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; O’Rourke; Delaney, and Inslee.

The first Democratic presidential debates will be held June 26 and 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. Miami

The second night of the back-to-back will feature former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg; author Marianne Williamson; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Of the top five polling candidates, Biden, Harris and Sanders haven’t made or announced appearances in Florida, a state that is critical during the general election but less important in the Democratic primary due to the belated date of its presidential preference election. But Buttigieg and Warren stumped in South Florida this week, with the latter holding a town hall at Florida International University’s Ocean Bank Convocation Center Tuesday night.

With so much going on in the campaign, there’s a ton of attention being paid to Miami: the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that the region has received more than $150 million in publicity thanks to the debates.

Even lawmakers with zero presidential aspirations are capitalizing on their proximity to the 2020 field.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represents one of the most competitive districts in the country and has spent considerable time and energy opposing the nation’s largest detention center for young immigrant children, urged 2020 candidates to join her Friday for a visit. Swalwell visited Tuesday morning and said he was denied entry to the detention center. Warren says she’s going Wednesday, O’Rourke has planned a Thursday visit, and Williamson says she’ll visit Friday.

“Immigration reform should be a top issue in this presidential election, and every 2020 presidential candidate ought to visit the Homestead Detention Center and join us in denouncing Trump’s cruel immigration policies,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “We need to place these children in safe homes and facilities and close this detention center down.”

Meanwhile, political groups like billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s For Our Future and NextGen America are holding gatherings and political marches. And former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum is hosting a watch party nearby the Arsht.

Not to be outdone, Trump Victory and the Republican National Committee have established their own presence in Miami this week, with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel stopping Wednesday at Cafe Versailles, a traditional Little Havana stomping grounds for any politician needing votes in Miami. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence launched Latinos for Trump, a Hispanic outreach arm co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor and former Miami state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez.

“I’m here for one reason and one reason only,” said Pence, who dropped an “Hola!” on the crowd gathered at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Miami Airport & Convention Center. “That is because Florida and America need four more years of President Donald Trump.”

Castro, the only Hispanic candidate in the race, listed a number of competitive states where he says his ethnicity and ability to engage with Hispanics is a unique asset that will help him beat Trump if nominated.

“I also believe there’s a tremendous opportunity in states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado my home state of Texas, Arizona to mobilize the Latino vote like never before,” Castro said. “I’m confident that my candidacy, this campaign and if I’m the nominee will help to galvanize the Latino vote like never before.”

But first, Castro, who is polling in the low single digits, will need to perform well in Wednesday’s debate. His next opportunity won’t come until the end of July, and it’s a long two months from there before any of the candidates will return to the stage in September, when the party’s polling and donor thresholds to participate become more rigorous.